By Kelley Tackett.

It may or may not come as a surprise that the months of COVID-19 lockdown have brought an increase in the number of artifacts looted from museums, archaeological sites, and mosques around the world, increasing the urgency of existing attempts to intervene in the theft and sale of illicit antiquities.[1] In a move described as “future-proofing our history,” the SmartWater Foundation is partnering with two Iraqi Museums as well as two universities in the United States and the United Kingdom to apply a self-described “crime-fighting” liquid to cultural artifacts as a mechanism to tag and safeguard them from theft .[2] The project is fully funded by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, which seeks to develop sustainable economic and social activities by caring for and encouraging engagement with cultural heritage.[3] The Foundation’s efforts to expand SmartWater’s usage into the cultural heritage sector were largely driven by the challenges outlined by law enforcement and museum administrators in identifying the origins of stolen artifacts recovered from the art market.

In its 2018 evaluation report on Protecting Iraqi Cultural Heritage, Deterring Looting and Trafficking, the UK-based Cultural Protection Fund recommended new measures to protect Iraqi cultural heritage while deterring looting and trafficking, focusing on a new technique spearheaded by the SmartWater Foundation, Shawnee State University (US), and University of Reading (UK). This technique involves applying small amounts of an “odorless, colorless liquid… invisible to the naked eye” to artifacts. The liquid, custom made for each repository, can help directly trace objects belonging to the two museums involved in this pilot project, the Iraq Museum (Baghdad) and Sulaimani Museum (Sulaimani).[4] The substance, known as SmartWater — distinct from the bottled water company bearing the same name — began as a protective measure for local law enforcement officers and homeowners in the UK to identify valuable property and track stolen objects, now acts also as a line of defense in protecting vulnerable cultural heritage. Each SmartWater bottle contains a unique chemical trace directly linking objects to specific individuals or institutions.[5]

SmartWater was first developed in 1990 in the UK as a for-profit company by two former law enforcement officers. They marketed it as a risk management product for local law enforcement and homeowners looking to safeguard their property. At present, SmartWater is utilized by more than a million businesses, homes, and heritage buildings worldwide.

First Arrest Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act

In a 2015 United States case, the Ultra Violet liquid led to the first ever arrest under the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act.[6] Looted antiquities lack a provenance, or known place of origin, making them difficult to trace or identify on the art market. SmartWater’s new product attempts to account for this lack of provenance, proving definitively the ownership of objects removed from the two museums. The 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act stipulates that it is illegal to “offer or display for sale any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States.” Loosely enforced over the preceding decades, in 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used SmartWater to trace jewelry pieces produced by Filipino manufacturers and purchased by U.S. importers to be sold as fake Native American artifacts. Following three and a half years of marking objects, an Albuquerque business owner was arrested when an undercover FBI agent purchased two jewelry pieces from his shop that had previously been marked by SmartWater. The business owner received six months in jail alongside a $9,000 fine, the first jail sentence ever handed to someone in violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.[7]

SmartWater Foundation’s Foray into Cultural Heritage Protection

Established in 2009, the SmartWater Foundation (“the Foundation”) is a non-profit wing of the company dedicated to making the unique solution accessible to communities without the financial capital to purchase it outright, but who maintain a vested interest in protecting valuable possessions or at-risk cultural heritage. The Foundation’s initial foray into the heritage sector came in 2017, when it partnered with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust following the theft of several lead pipes from a historic home. Currently, artifacts and structural elements in all five buildings under the Trust’s care are tagged with the UV solution in a move meant both to deter thieves with visible SmartWater signage and ensure any recovered property could be immediately traced to the Trust.[8] That same year, the Foundation collaborated with a Syrian archaeologist, Professor Amr Al-Azm, to mark Roman mosaics, Byzantine pottery, and ancient sculptures at risk of damage and theft in Syria.[9] More than a preemptive measure, as explained in an interview with the Center for Art Law, SmartWater CEO Phil Cleary hoped the partnership might serve to deter collectors from purchasing Syrian antiquities already on the market which lack a secure provenance in fear they may be marked and therefore easily traced back to archaeological sites or museums. Since 2011, at least 5,844 artifacts were looted from the Idlib Archaeological Museum alone, with the Palmyra Museum reporting at least 3,450 cultural objects missing.[10] Through the dual approach of protecting artifacts currently in museums and unsettling stolen objects already on the market, SmartWater’s efforts include these nearly ten thousand artifacts currently absent from both museums.

This SmartWater solution is safe for use on stone, pottery, metal, and glass, without substantive risk, and can withstand harsh conditions.[11] Experiments to ensure the solution would not harm antique artifacts took nearly two years, noted Cleary, and the liquid used for cultural heritage protection is unique from the company’s original creation. According to the 2018 report, experiments remain underway for a liquid tracer possible for use on cloth, hide, paper, or wood, which represent a significant portion of the museums’ collections.

Expansion into Iraq

Through its expansion into Iraq, the Foundation’s goals are once again two-fold: protect the artifacts currently in the Iraq and Suleimani museums, and deter would-be sellers from acquiring objects of dubious provenance. In 2003, more than 15,000 antiquities were looted from the Iraq Museum in the 36 hours following the arrival of U.S. military forces in Baghdad.[12] Just under half of these objects had been recovered fifteen years following the initial upheaval.[13] Past efforts to identify and return looted Iraqi artifacts take multifarious forms, ranging from a 2004 amnesty program where those with information leading to the discovery of previously stolen artifacts would not be prosecuted to several large-scale international investigations targeting collections in London or New York. The months of amnesty saw the return of nearly 2,000 objects, several of which, including the famous Warka Vase, were among the museum’s most high-profile items. Two databases, run by Interpol and the University of Chicago, documented the particular artifacts stolen and their process of return, providing a valuable resource in locating antiquities on the market.[14]

In marking 274,000 objects with the SmartWater solution, Iraqi museum officials hoped to simplify the process of recovery and repatriation should any of those artifacts be stolen, and English-language signs cautioning visitors that the artifacts are protected by SmartWater act as potential deterrents.[15] One study suggests the presence of these signs alone is enough to dishearten many would-be thieves, without taking into account the potential effectiveness of the UV solution itself.[16] Despite the presence of signs in the galleries, the extensive list of artifacts actually marked is kept private to ensure the objects’ safety and to prevent targeted theft.[17] More than this, even a SmartWater speck the size of dust is traceable. Should a thief endeavor to discover and remove the UV liquid, the miniscule flecks on clothing or the artifact’s storage location would still be incriminating, noted Cleary. Rather than struggling to prove ownership should any stolen museum object appear on the market, the SmartWater mark allows authorities to immediately connect the piece to the museum — the liquid identification will even include the date of application and the individual who applied the trace.[18] As yet, no antiquities tied to these museums via SmartWater have appeared on the art market.

Future applications

The Bosra Museum and an archaeological museum in Mosul are slated for SmartWater’s ongoing expansion in Iraq. The Bosra Museum was meant to be included in the first wave of trainings, but administrative delays meant the artifacts arrived in Bosra before they could be marked.[19] The Foundation is looking to archaeological museums in Yemen and Libya, as well, where cultural heritage remains at risk of theft and further damage. Due to the number of trained museum professionals already in Iraq, SmartWater noted in their 2018 report that the Iraqi specialists would likely be the best candidates to train Yemeni specialists, rather than those working on the project from the UK.[20]


Iraqi museum officials have overall responded positively to the SmartWater Foundation’s anti-trafficking initiative, citing the low-cost ability to mark and trace artifacts and the ability of each solution to directly identify a particular museum as exciting new avenues.[21] SmartWater discounted the UV solution itself by 75-80 percent in working with the Iraqi museums, and the cost of protecting each artifact comes to 0.005 pounds per year, or about 40,950 pounds for all artifacts over the duration of the 30-year contract.[22]

Eighty-nine percent of the Iraqi professionals trained in SmartWater application rated the project favorably, and felt it occupied a useful and innovative space in cultural heritage protection. Half of the 43 professionals trained felt that the project should expand to include more museums in different areas of the country. Those who responded negatively, either in response to the project or its proposed expansion, cited concern for the solution’s impact on human health and uncomfortable working conditions.[23]

Some archaeologists and museum professionals have raised concerns regarding how strong the role of antiquities in funding terrorist activity actually is, and whether focusing attention on the deterring of terrorism through the protection of antiquities is the best idea.[24] Additionally, most antiquities looted from Iraq and Syria are not actually high-profile items that might appear on the market, thereby reducing the usefulness of a product like SmartWater in identifying museum pieces.[25]


SmartWater’s anti-trafficking solution promises to enable experts to recognize and repatriate marked artifacts stolen from particular museums, assuming the artifacts appear on the international market and are checked with a UV light for special markings. Their 2018 collaboration with the Cultural Protection Fund as well as the University of Reading and Shawnee State University intends to fill an existing gap in anti-trafficking measures which makes it challenging to identify looted objects and prove their provenance. In addition to the UV-detectable marks, all objects are also afforded forensic study and legal defense from the Foundation as part of the agreement with museums. This structure ensures that artifacts will not only be identified on the market, but have adequate support in court concerning their repatriation.

When asked about the projet’s greatest significance, Cleary cited the Foundation’s close engagement with the Iraqi people and letting them know that the UK and US are committed to assisting them in protecting their heritage. Given the legitimate criticism and praises for SmartWater’s latest approach to anti-trafficking measures, only time will tell if Iraqi, Syrian, or Yemeni artifacts are adequately “future-proofed” for posterity.


  1. Carlie Porterfield, Smugglers Are Using Coronavirus Lockdowns To Loot Artifacts, Forbes (April 30, 2020). ?
  2. SmartWater Heritage, Future-Proofing Our History, SmartWater Foundation (2020). ?
  3. British Council, Cultural Protection Fund Evaluation Report, British Council: Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (2018). ?
  4. Id. ?
  5. SmartWater Heritage, supra. ?
  6. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 U.S.C. § 101-644 (1990). ?
  7. U.S. v. Ali et al., No. 1:15-cr-3762 (D.N.M. Aug. 28, 2018). ?
  8. SmartWater Foundation, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Now Protected By SmartWater (2017). ?
  9. Marianne Modlinger, SmartWater Now Used to Protect Cultural Heritage in Syria, European Association of Archaeologists, Committee on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material (March 29, 2017). ?
  10. Id. ?
  11. SmartWater Foundation, SmartWater B-67™ (2020). ?
  12. Craig Barker, Fifteen Years After Looting, Thousands of Artifacts are still Missing from Iraq’s National Museum, The Conversation (April 9, 2018). ?
  13. Sigal Samuel, It’s Disturbingly Easy To Buy Iraq’s Archaeological Treasures, The Atlantic (March 19, 2018). ?
  14. Brian Knowlton, Tea and Amnesty Recover Thousands of Antiquities for Iraq, New York Times (September 10, 2003). ?
  15. British Council, Cultural Protection Fund Evaluation Report, supra at 9. ?
  16. Perpetuity Research and Consultancy, An Evaluation of SmartWater Offenders’ Perspectives, SmartWater CSI (2020). ?
  17. British Council, Cultural Protection Fund Evaluation Report, supra at 14. ?
  18. Id. at 16. ?
  19. Id. at 19. ?
  20. Id. ?
  21. Perpetuity Research and Consultancy, supra. ?
  22. University of Reading, Priceless Artefacts in Iraq Protected Against Theft Using New SmartWater ‘Fingerprinting’ (April 29, 2020). ?
  23. British Council, Cultural Protection Fund Evaluation Report, supra at 15 ?
  24. Max Kutner, New Tool to Stop ISIS From Trafficking Artifacts: A Liquid Tracking Device, Newsweek (March 21, 2017). ?
  25. Andrea Watson, How Antiquities are Funding Terrorism, The Financial Times (June 28, 2015). ?

About the Author: Kelley Tackett is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she earned A.B. degrees in Archaeology, Middle East Studies, and Linguistic Anthropology. Her research interests include cultural heritage law, repatriation, and community-based archaeology.